Quick response to my post coming under the knife…


Dave of Though Cowards Flinch disagrees with my thoughts on Sikh knives being allowed in schools.

I appreciate the need to try to respect pluralism and to accommodate the individual beliefs and cultural attachments of pupils. As a vegetarian I appreciated not being forced to eat meat at lunchtime and having the veggie option available. I’m aware that my dietary choice was ‘eccentric’ when compared to the majority and that I personally benefited from a certain flexibility in school rules and administration. 

I’m not sure, however, that I’m comfortable with Dave’s line that everyone should be allowed to wear their own symbols as long as they don’t harm others. Would swastikas be tolerated in Dave’s classroom? [EH-ERRR. Yes I know, the sound of Godwin’s law being broken!] On the face of it, a swastika is less harmful and intimidating than a knife.

Also: I don’t really see why Dave has come up with this:

“Thinking secularists would surely defend the right of anyone to do anything, provided that it was unlikely to result in harm or the coercion of any individual.”

That seems more like a summary of liberalism or libertarianism to me than secularism. Dave then gets in a huff about my concern that religions are being granted exceptional status in the law and seems to suggest that this shouldn’t be relevant to secularists. He writes:

“…You could exclude non-Sikhs from wearing the kirpan on the same basis as excluding someone who claimed a shotgun was part of their worldview; blatant opportunism, rather than serious conviction.”

It is an odd sort of secularism that gives religious affiliation a priviliged position; when religious people are allowed to engage in behaviour clearly outside mainstream norms simply because they are religious. 

As I say, I understand that Dave as a teacher presumably presiding over a classroom of diverse individuals wants to maintain some sort of happy compromise, but I can’t see how Dave the secularist can be satisfield with rewarding those with “serious conviction” with behavioural exemptions.

Sunny over at Pickled Politics also disagrees with me, thinks schools should be allowed to let Sikh kids carry kirpans if they want to, and has a bit of a go at nasty militant atheists for being rude about religion.

Sunny posits leftie atheists criticising religion damage the left. I accept that sometimes this can happen. I myself try not to be too crude. Even when I do, I think I manage to get along fine with my religious friends and comrades. I would perhaps suggest to Sunny that endorsing a form of multiculturalism that grants all sorts of benefits and priviliges to those who shout loudest about their cultural identity and distracts from materialist interests has been more damaging to the left – but that’s a blog post for another day. 

Some of Sunny’s readers think it is bigoted and intolerant to describe the religious obligation to carry a knife around with you as “eccentric”. Such ridiculously sensitive souls.  

I like this article by Hardeep Singh Kohli in the Guardian. Well, not all of it, but this makes sense to me:

“Sir Mota believes that it is wrong to stop schoolkids wearing the secreted, ceremonial dagger into school and believe that it is an infringement of a child’s right to practise their religion. Let me repeat that: he thinks it’s OK for kids to take knives to class. Flippant though this may sound, while going to school in Barnet may be challenging, it’s not the Punjab in 1708. Sir Mota notes that there has been no case of any Sikh child using the kirpan in a violent way. But I’m simply not comfortable with knives being allowed into school. What if the kirpan were forcibly removed and used? The practicality of baptised Sikhs carrying kirpans is not a new issue. That is why small, symbolic kirpans are attached to combs that Sikhs keep in their hair. Similarly, small kirpan-shaped pendants are worn around the neck, again fulfilling the criterion of the faith that the dagger be ever-present…

…We must do all we can to protect the rights of people to enjoy the way of life they choose. But there are more important battles to fight with regard to religious intolerance than whether Sikh kids can wear kirpans to school. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but all religions could do with taking a step back from symbols and icons and explore a little more deeply the philosophical content of what their belief system hopes to offer the world.”


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7 Responses to “Quick response to my post coming under the knife…”

  1. Dave Semple Says:

    I think comparing the Kirpan to the swastika is pointlessly offensive – and I’m an atheist. The kirpan – if it can even be seen by anyone else – is not intrinsically offensive, it does not symbolize the murder of millions of Jews.

    With regard to the classroom, there are no grounds on which the State should proscribe the wearing of swatikas – just as there should be no grounds on which the State should proscribe kirpans within schools.

    Sunny is right; issues like these are ones for local democracy. Pupils and teachers should collectively decide what is permitted in the classroom and what is not, not the school management, in this case the representatives of the State. As a teacher, just as I would haved argued were I a student once more, I would support a ban on the swastika but not on religious symbols.

    This is not religious exceptionalism. It is a practical and democratic resolution to the issue of freedom of speech and expression, which is vital in a school context. Often this is precisely the context where the authorities are overbearing and children learn to be docile in the face of that authority.

    But that gets off the topic slightly, and your article above doesn’t answer the key point. You said secularism was under threat here, I said it’s not. My argument is that this is not a question of religion; it is a question of our relationship to authority – the practice of a religion is the form the question takes this time, but is not the substance of it.

  2. Sunny H Says:

    I would perhaps suggest to Sunny that endorsing a form of multiculturalism that grants all sorts of benefits and priviliges to those who shout loudest about their cultural identity and distracts from materialist interests has been more damaging to the left – but that’s a blog post for another day.

    Yes but you’re raising a strawman to deflect from the point I’m making. Religious people can frequently be allies in campaigns against poverty. London Citizens is a prime example.

  3. captainjako Says:

    Well, Dave, you were framing the debate in terms of the individual’s right to wear symbols and talked about your habit of putting on hammer’n’sickle badges. I would argue that the swastika should be banned in a classroom not just because of offensiveness but also because it is an aggressive and intimidating symbol. In much the same way I would consider someone demanding the right to carry a knife on them, albeit one that might be hidden, as potentially aggressive and intimidating for other pupils.

    I don’t want to get into your interesting ideas on classroom democracy.

    I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on whether this constitutes a form of religious exceptionalism. You saying someone should be allowed to carry a kirpan if it was for reasons of “sincere conviction” but those without such conviction should not be allowed to bring in weapons they claim as important cultural symbols seems to me like exceptionalism based on religious belief.

    Compromise should of course be sought. I think I’d be cool with kirpans if they were made out of plastic, or better still foam.

  4. captainjako Says:

    “Yes but you’re raising a strawman to deflect from the point I’m making. Religious people can frequently be allies in campaigns against poverty. London Citizens is a prime example.”

    Sunny, I’m not denying that, but I found it hard to believe that from my post you’d deduce that I’d want to sever all contact with the religious and exclude them from politics altogether.

    Since you were discussing the damage done to the left by “militant secularists” etc I think it was quite legitimate for me to point out that misguided multiculturalists have also weakened the left.

  5. Dave Semple Says:

    Jako, how is allowing a foam or plastic kirpan not a form of religious exceptionalism?

  6. captainjako Says:

    I suppose I would have to allow any pupil who wanted to wear a foam or plastic kirpan to do so, Sikh or not. This would be if I was in a compromising mood. I’d much rather just try to enforce a strict uniform policy. Have you found yourself dealing with a situation such as this in the classroom yet?

  7. Danivon Says:

    The problem was that the family in the case being mentioned weren’t up for a compromise. The kirpan had to be real, it had to be usable. Symbolic versions, or one fixed into it’s sheath were not apparently acceptable to them, even having been offered by the school

    That made it unsuitable for bringing to a school.

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